10,000 health workers vote to strike as Omicron wave hits

Source: 1News

Thousands of health workers, including Covid contact tracers and test lab staff, have voted to strike nationwide as Omicron cases are soon expected to peak.

Scientist in laboratory (file image)

Allied, scientific and technical public health workers are striking over low pay, poor working conditions and equal treatment as compared to other health professions, the Public Service Association (PSA) said on Thursday.

Two 24-hour strikes are planned for early March, with 10,000 health workers planning to walk out after 15 months of “fruitless” negotiations.

"The depth of feeling from our members, and the support for industrial action nationwide is unprecedented,” PSA organiser Will Matthews said. “We are now in a position where strike action is our only remaining option to get the DHBs and the Government to listen.”

Over 70 groups of health workers are planning to strike on March 4 and 18, including contact tracers and laboratory staff who work processing Covid-19 tests.

“New Zealand needs each and every one of these professionals. And yet many of them don’t even earn a living wage,” Matthews said.

The PSA said some members are facing critical workforce shortages, with some allied health departments reporting vacancies of up to 66 per cent.

“The DHBs have proposed to change all starting rates to the living wage but have not agreed to implement solutions to allow fair wage progression - despite offering provisions that enable this to low paid workers in other health professions,” the PSA said.

Reports have previously emerged of exhausted laboratory staff on sites where Covid-19 tests are processed.

In a statement on Thursday evening, Health Minister Andrew Little said he understood the "frustration" of the workers who voted to strike.

"As I understand it, the DHBs are now going to apply to the Employment Relations Authority for facilitation to try and break through the remaining issues."

He said unions should take the opportunity to avoid strike action.

"I'm urging the DHBs to do everything they can to come to the party, to come to terms and reach agreement to avoid a strike action happening... The reality is most workers and health workers would rather not take industrial action."

The Health Minister also said the PSA's pay equity claims should be dealt with separately.

Earlier at a media stand-up, Little said he hadn’t been briefed on the strike action. The Health Minister had been answering questions on the Government’s recently released report on understaffing in public hospitals.

The report, which was focussed on staffing levels among nurses, found national workforce planning had contributed to a severe shortage of hospital staff.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said the peak of the Omicron wave is expected in late March, but that the precise size of the outbreak would be difficult to predict due to the booster rollout.

Modelling by Te Pūnaha Matatini modellers, under the new title of Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa, found that between 30 and 70 per cent of the country would be infected during the Omicron wave.

Between 1200 to 2600 would require hospital-level care at the peak of the wave, according to the modellers, representing up to 20 per cent of the country’s hospital bed capacity.

While there could be between 10,000 to 20,000 new cases reported daily, the worst-case scenario could see 50,000 people infected every day.

During Phase 2 and 3 of the Government’s plan to manage Omicron, contact tracers are expected to focus on contacting people from vulnerable communities with a greater risk of severe illness.

PCR tests that would require laboratory capacity are also expected to be used primarily on priority populations.

In a media conference on Wednesday, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said New Zealand was just at the start of its Omicron wave.

“We are definitely still on the way up. If we look at the experience of other countries, there is no doubt that case numbers will keep going up.”